Tag Archives: writing fiction

A Short Guide to Handling Speeches in Fiction

Whether they take the form of lectures or diatribes, speeches are rarely enjoyable to listen to–unless they happen to combine the talents of a gifted orator and a skilled speechwriter. But this combination is rare. The average speech is, well . . . average. This is generally true in real life and especially true in fiction.

Yet many aspiring novelists think it’s a good idea to include speeches. They appear either as formal addresses to a captive audience or, more commonly, informal monologue. Here’s an example of the latter.  During a coffee break at the lab, Dr. Saurus, a mad scientist who’s secretly recreating extinct creatures in test tubes, lectures his colleagues about the natural history of the Triassic, Cretaceous, and Jurassic periods. But more about the good doctor later.

The problem with speeches is that your plot typically goes on vacation during them, so everything grinds to a halt. The grave danger is that the reader will get bored, impatient, or exhausted and will consign your book to the trash can. Obviously, you don’t want that to happen, so what should you do about speeches?

First, consider the purpose of each speech. What does the speaker want to achieve? Cut out anything that’s irrelevant to that purpose. If, for example, Dr. Saurus wants to reveal the nature of his experiments to his colleagues, he should confine his words to those experiments. He shouldn’t ramble on about the Triassic, Cretaceous, and Jurassic periods; the scientists know about them already, and he comes off looking pedantic. He’s also committing the terrible sin of information dumping, which brings me to my second point.

Include only information that’s vital for the reader’s understanding of what’s happening. Anything beyond that is extraneous. If readers want an in-depth discussion about the Jurassic period, they’ll google it or pick up a book on the subject. Don’t pummel them with paragraph after paragraph of facts and figures. When you do, they forget they’re even reading a novel and imagine they’ve mistakenly wandered into a textbook. Remember that few things destroy the fictive dream like a big information dump in a speech. A far better approach is to eliminate such speeches altogether and weave their content bit by bit into the narrative instead of depositing it all in one place.

But if you’re still committed to keeping a speech in and have done your best to rid it of irrelevant material, it may still be too long. If so, there’s a lot more you should be doing. Try interrupting the speech. Consider for a moment that many authors write speeches without properly supporting them with narrative. Reading this is much like listening to the radio; you hear a voice, but you can’t see where the speaker is or what he’s doing. This results in an incomplete sensory experience for the reader. Interrupt monologue with lots of supporting details about characters’ actions, gestures, and expressions. In the Dr. Saurus example, one of the scientists might jump up and down excitedly after hearing about the experiments and spill coffee on a colleague. Remember that the speaker isn’t talking to zombies (well, not usually) but to actual human beings who react to what’s being said, so interrupt using questions or comments from listeners as well. Another of Dr. Saurus’s colleagues might ask him why he wants to recreate extinct creatures and accuse him of playing God. Dialogue and interaction are inherently more dramatic than monologue, which is essentially static, so don’t hesitate to turn speeches into conversations.

As well, you can briefly summarize many points of a speech in narrative form while giving your character choice lines highlighting the most important or dramatic points. For example, you could summarize Dr. Saurus’s experimental procedures in a paragraph but allow him to talk about the exciting results of his work: a baby stegosaurus hatching in his lab right before his very eyes!

Much like Dr. Saurus, you as an author get to play God. You’re in control of everything that happens in your book, so unruly characters needn’t get away from you and run the show. You probably wouldn’t let someone drone on and on in real life uninterrupted, so why let it happen in your fiction? Use the above techniques to more effectively handle speeches. They may take work, but the payoff is prose that will keep readers thoroughly engaged in your work.


The Name Game: Character Names in Fiction

The other day, my friend and colleague Arlene Prunkl and I were comparing notes about how authors sometimes treat character names, and our discussion sparked this post (a good thing, since I’ve been short of inspiration lately). I’d wanted to write about the dos and don’ts of names but realized that what not to do was my chief concern. Here are some name-related pitfalls that are best avoided.

First of all, avoid duplication. Particularly in large, sprawling books, authors are prone to forget that they’ve already used a name, and they may accidentally use it again for a second character, which confuses the heck out of readers. Let’s say two characters have the same surname; readers will inevitably wonder if they’re related. If there’s no explanation of the connection between Dr. Harbinger and Dorothea Harbinger, readers will either keep scratching their heads or assume you mistakenly used the name twice. Either way, it’s a distraction that’s going to pull readers out of the flow of your narrative. Although you may know two people named Harbinger in real life (and they may even be unrelated), it’s best not to have two characters with an identical surname unless the relationship between them is made clear from the get-go.

Similarly, avoid names that sound too much alike or that rhyme. In most contexts, it just sounds silly and makes readers giggle (which is only fine if you want them to). When I was in high school, I had a friend whose parents were Victor and Victoria, which was even funnier when the film Victor Victoria came out. I’m sorry, but Denise and Dennis should probably not be wandering around in your book, let alone having a secret love affair, although certainly Denise and Bryan could be. And Miles, Giles, and Niles should not be let loose unless they are actually triplets and appear in nonsense verse for children.

There’s also the issue of overuse of names. I frequently see this sort of thing in dialogue:

“Well, Miles, how was work today?

“It was fine, Giles, but Niles is going to have to start delegating more work to junior colleagues.”

“I agree, Miles.”

I exaggerate here, but you get the point. When this is overdone, it can feel as if a pair of robots are speaking. There’s something stilted about constantly addressing other characters by name in dialogue. And after a while it just grates on your nerves. If you listen to real people talking, you won’t hear anyone doing this. Think about when you would actually use someone’s name in conversation. It might be when you’ve just been introduced or when you’re saying goodbye. Or it could be when you’re angry with someone or trying to get her attention. Limit usage of the name to these types of instances, and your dialogue will seem much more fluid and realistic.

Also avoid using a character’s name when you could simply use he or she and him or her without sacrificing the reader’s comprehension of what’s taking place in the scene. Consider the following:

Griselda looked in the mirror and admired her reflection. Griselda then carefully applied dark blue mascara and dabbed her favourite perfume, Shalimar, carefully on her wrists. It was a shame, Griselda reflected, that Hank would not be at the banquet to see how she had transformed herself from an ugly duckling to a graceful swan. “It’s his loss!” Griselda said to no one in particular.

Of course this snippet would be better with only one Griselda; the others add nothing except unnecessary repetition. By all means use the name when it’s needed to clarify who’s doing what. If there were two women in the room, for example, you would need to use names more often to help readers distinguish the action of one from the other.

If you avoid these name-related pitfalls, you’ll avoid confusing and annoying readers– and your prose will be seem livelier and more natural too!

Avoiding the Stuffy Voice in Fiction

One unfortunate trap that beginning writers tend to fall into is using formal language in a context that calls for more ordinary words. I’ve made up a rather extreme example of this sort of slip-up in diction to illustrate what it looks like at its worst:

“What’ll you have?” Betsy asked. She wiped the cheap arborite table clean and glared at Mavis, who had been taking way too much time making up her mind. Why couldn’t the old bat hurry up?

“I’m not sure.” With watery blue eyes, Mavis looked up at Betsy. “Got any ideas?” She combed her thin, ratty hair into place with her fingers.

“Coffee and a blueberry danish? Ain’t that your usual?” Betsy hoped that she’d just quit her stalling and agree to it already.

Mavis perused the luncheon menu. “On the contrary, I much prefer tea. Might you endeavour to expedite my request?” she inquired politely.

The last paragraph will have readers wondering if Mavis has forgotten she’s in an ordinary diner and has suddenly developed a delusion that she’s a character in Downton Abbey and is meeting with the Crawley family in their parlour to have afternoon tea. This unwelcome intrusion of the stuffy voice into a story that is otherwise written in very plain, everyday English is jarring to say the least. Try reading the scene aloud. Did you hear the clunking noises as the words of the last paragraph hit your ears?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with fancy words; no doubt the English language would be impoverished without them. But it’s vital that writers understand when it’s appropriate to use them, and when using them is overreaching. Sometimes it’s an ego issue–writers like to impress with their extensive vocabularies and often think that the bigger the word, the better. But inflating the language when it’s clearly inappropriate to do so is always an error in judgment, and readers will always think more highly of  writers who use a level of diction that suits their context. Throwing highfalutin words around where they don’t belong doesn’t make writers look smarter–in fact, quite the reverse is true. Writers need to toss the thesaurus aside and write with an ear to what sounds natural in the particular fictional world they’re trying to create.

With that in mind, I’m revising that last paragraph in the vignette about Betsy and Mavis:

Mavis looked at the menu. “Actually, I’d like some tea. Could you hurry, please?” she asked.

I hope you agree that this does the job, and in a way that suits the sort of ordinary people Mavis and Betsy are and the unpretentious world they occupy.